An animal sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is facing ransom demands after kidnappers kidnapped three of its baby chimpanzees.
“This is the first time in the world that baby monkeys were kidnapped for ransom,” Franck Chantereau, founder of the sanctuary where the kidnapping took place, told CNN on Friday.
His sanctuary, called Young Animals Confiscated in Katanga (abbreviated to JACK in French), is in Lubumbashi, near the border between the DRC and Zambia, on a key route from Congo to South Africa through which monkeys are smuggled to the rest of the world.
Kidnappers broke into the sanctuary at 3 a.m. on Sept. 9, Chantereau said, and took away three of the five baby chimpanzees he had rescued so far this year — César, Hussein and Monga. He later found the other two hiding in the kitchen.
An hour after the burglary, Chantereau’s wife received three messages and a video of the abducted chimpanzees from the kidnappers.
“They told us that they planned to kidnap my children because they were going to come here on vacation. But they didn’t come, so the kidnappers took these three babies hostage and demanded a large amount of ransom from us,” said Chantereau.
The kidnappers claimed to have threatened the chimpanzees and threatened to hurt them if Chantereau did not pay the ransom.
“Obviously it’s impossible for us to pay the ransom,” Chantereau said. “Not only do we not have the money, but you have to understand that if we go their way, they can do it again in two months, and we also have no guarantee that they will return the baby to us.”
Chantereau also feared it would open the door to further kidnappings. “There are 23 sanctuaries across the continent that do this. If we pay the ransom, it can set a precedent and it can give ideas to others, so we must be extremely vigilant,” he said.
“We will not give in to this kind of demand,” Michel Koyakpa, media adviser to DRC’s environment minister, told CNN on Friday.
“(The kidnap) is inhumane and unnatural,” Koyakpa said.
Authorities are still investigating and trying to identify the kidnappers, hoping to find them in the coming days or weeks, according to Koyakpa.
The kidnap is “the first of its kind in the history of the DRC,” he added.
However, this is not the first time that the sanctuary of Chantereau has been the target. Months after its establishment in 2006, a group of people broke in at night and set fire to the chimpanzees’ sleeping quarters, killing two of the five who were there at the time.
In September 2013, the sanctuary’s education center was set on fire, but there were no casualties, according to Chantereau.
It has now been almost two weeks since Chantereau last received proof from the kidnappers that the chimpanzees were still alive, and he is worried.
“We cannot go back to our daily lives, we are completely devastated,” he said.
But Chantereau said the kidnapping will not shake his determination to save baby chimpanzees from the clutches of smugglers.
“To capture the babies, they have to kill the entire family in the jungle, usually between 8 and 10 individual monkeys, and many of the baby monkeys will die before reaching their final destination,” Chantereau said.
Many of the buyers of the smuggled babies are rich people who, according to Chantereau, want to keep exotic animals in their homes.
“They don’t understand the consequences of their actions, because one little baby comes into their hands, at least 10 have been killed,” he said.
It is also dangerous because chimpanzees grow up quickly and an adult chimpanzee can kill an adult human with his bare hands.
Chantereau is not hopeful about the future. “I know that unfortunately (kidnappings) will happen more and more often,” he said.
“All these animals are becoming rarer in the forest. We in the sanctuaries, we have animals, they are healthy. It is clear that it is much easier for these people to attack us.”